Leading article: With voters in a mood to punish, the chance of a lifetime has been lost

Related Topics

There was one conspicuous winner and one conspicuous loser from Thursday's elections and the historic referendum.

And the contrasting fortunes say much about the state of politics and the mood of voters one year after the general election produced the UK's first post-war coalition government. There is elation for some, but bitter disappointment for all of us who had hoped for so long for electoral reform.

The far and away winner from the elections was Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party. Mr Salmond commands admiration as one of the most accomplished politicians, not just north of the border, but beyond. That he led his party to an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament from almost certain defeat just a month ago is a tribute to his competitive instincts and campaigning skills. But it also reflects the positive record he was able to present to Scottish voters. In Nicola Spurling and others, he also had competent and loyal lieutenants.

In a move that might give David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats retrospective pause for thought, Mr Salmond had taken the risk of leading a minority government. To legislate, he built the alliances he needed. The challenge for the SNP now will be to preserve the consensual way of operating that Scotland appears to like, while taking advantage of its position as a majority government.

The SNP's manifesto promise to hold a referendum on Scottish independence before the end of the new Parliament could prove a bugbear here. If, as it appears at present, Scots would like just a bit more fiscal independence without going the whole hog, Mr Salmond's ambition for full sovereignty could become a liability. Then again, in today's politics, canniness, competence and strength of character count for a lot.

It could be said that it was the lack of such qualities that made the Liberal Democrats, and above all their leader, Nick Clegg, the big election losers. The referendum on the alternative vote, on which they had staked so much, looks to have been thoroughly lost. They were routed in local council elections in the north of England, being overtaken by Labour in Sheffield and losing seats across the board in Liverpool and Manchester. Mr Clegg was not completely wrong to plead in mitigation that the Liberal Democrats took all the punishment for budget cuts because the Conservatives had so few seats in the north to lose. The difficulty with this argument is that elsewhere the Conservative vote held up unexpectedly well, and voters roundly rejected the argument for AV.

The sad truth is that the Liberal Democrats were punished not just for being in government, but for being Liberal Democrats in government – perhaps for being in government at all. And the roots of their defeat – a defeat on all fronts – reflect Mr Clegg's failure to shake off the early charges of betrayal. Entering a coalition as a junior partner necessarily demands compromise. For erstwhile Liberal Democrat voters, however, Mr Clegg's compromises went too far and – unlike Mr Salmond – he was incapable of mounting a convincing defence. Backtracking on the manifesto promise to abolish student tuition fees became a particular source of resentment, if only because that one pledge had persuaded so many to vote Liberal Democrat.


Provisional figures show that most of the Liberal Democrats' losses were Labour gains, but not enough to bring serious cheer to Ed Miliband. Defeat in Scotland was a bitter blow – acknowledged by the Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, who dutifully fell on his sword. In Wales, Labour fell short of an overall majority, and in council elections elsewhere, the party did little more than recoup losses from four years before, when it was at a particularly low ebb. The evidence is less of a "bounce" from Mr Miliband's leadership than of a return to earlier loyalties by those who had flirted with the Liberal Democrats.

The drama now passes from Scotland, where Mr Salmond is safely ensconced, to Westminster, where the authority of Nick Clegg, the dynamics of the Coalition, and perhaps even its survival, are suddenly in question. Just a year after that election with an equivocal outcome, the uncertainties have suddenly become more and not less.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
One 200ml bottle of codeine linctus contains three times the equivalent level of morphine you'd get in casualty if you broke your wrist  

The ‘war on drugs’ consistently ignores its greatest enemy: over-the-counter painkillers

Janet Street-Porter
The author contemplating what could have been  

I was a timid, kind, gentle-natured child, later to be spurned and humiliated – in short, the perfect terrorist-in-waiting

Howard Jacobson
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable